Undesigned coincidences and historical reliability

Dr Tim McGrew of the Library of Historical Apologetics just posted a fascinating document in a private Facebook group of which I am a part:

Sometimes two historical records incidentally touch on the same point in a manner that would be very unlikely if one of them were copied from the other or if both were copied from a common source. For example, one account of an event may leave out a bit of information, leaving some natural question unanswered, while a different account indirectly supplies the missing detail and, in so doing, answers that question. When this happens, the best explanation is that both records are grounded in the actual historical event; that is why the two bits fit together so well.

Forgers do not want to leave loose ends like this that might raise awkward questions; they take care to tie everything together neatly. But these are just the sort of things we would expect to find in authentic records of the same real event told by different people who knew what they were talking about.

He then goes on to give some key examples from the gospels:

1. Why does Herod Antipas ask his servants about Jesus? (Matt. 14:1-2) Answer: One of the followers of Jesus was the wife of Herod’s steward. (Luke 8:3)

2. After the transfiguration, why do the disciples tell no one? (Luke 9:36) Answer: Because Jesus specifically told them to tell no one. (Mark 9:9)

3. In the lead up to the feeding of the 5,000, why does Jesus ask Philip (a minor figure in the Gospels by any standard) where they are going to find bread to feed all of these people? Answer: Because the setting was Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), which was Philip’s home town (John 1:44).

4. In John 18:32, Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king. What prompted that question? (Nothing earlier in the chapter indicates that this was a charge leveled against Jesus.) Answer: Though John does not record it, the Jews did make that very charge against Jesus. (Luke 23:1-2)

5. In Luke 23:1-4, Pilate asks Jesus whether he is a king, and Jesus gives an answer that is certainly not a denial and that many scholars take for a terse, idiomatic acknowledgement. Then Pilate declares that he finds him innocent. How can this puzzling fact be explained? Answer: Luke is giving only a summary of the interview. In a fuller account, we discover that Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world. (John 18:36)

6. In Mark 14:58 and Mark 15:29, the charge is reiterated that Jesus threatened to destroy the Temple. Yet nowhere in the Synoptics do we find his saying anything about this—not even something that could plausibly be misunderstood. What lay behind the charge? Answer: In John 2:18-19 we find Jesus saying, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.”

This last example fits quite well (in linking Mark and John) with Richard Bauckham’s argument, first put clearly in his chapter ‘John for readers of Mark’ in The Gospel for All Christians. But the others suggest links in other directions, and as Tim says, the most obvious explanation is that the different accounts are all working from a single historical reality.

Another connection that has interested me for a while is that between Luke and Revelation. Uniquely in Luke’s version of the ‘Sinai Apocalypse’, Luke 21, Jesus talks of people falling by ‘the edge of the sword’ (v 24), an allusion to Jeremiah 21.7 also found in Rev 13.10, and also uniquely describes Jerusalem as being ‘trampled by the Gentiles’ (same verse), a phrase found in Rev 11.2. I look forward to reading more on this in Paul Penley’s recent monograph on Synoptic traditions in the Apocalypse.

All this suggests that the NT documents are closely related to historical events, and closely related to one another in ways we have not always appreciated. And it also suggests that modern biblical scholarship has not attended to this data sufficiently. For where do these insights come from? None other than William Paley, the famous apologist, in his 1790 Horae Paulinae, material from which was picked up and expanded by John James Blunt in 1869. You can find a full bibliography at the Library of Historical Apologetics.

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10 thoughts on “Undesigned coincidences and historical reliability”

  1. Interesting this. I was reading Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses on retreat this summer and I was struck at his argument about how the ancients saw historical enquiry and the idea that people are named in the Gospels when they have access to the person. So Bartimaeus is known to Mark and not to the others so that they don’t name him.It seems to make a lot of sense and to value their efforts to meet the historical inquiry standards of the day.

  2. Yes, it does. And on something like the naming of Bartimaeus, Bauckham is using data from the historical context (i.e. the practices of first century history writers) to make sense of the data of the text, which is much better than some speculative work in the area.

  3. Isn’t Mark 13:1-2 a plausible source for the charge that Jesus had threatened to destroy the Temple? The charge is reiterated in the trial of Stephen (Acts 6:14)and Stephen’s own speech contains a similar statement which could be taken as a threat (Acts 7:48-50)

  4. Ian, it is true that Jesus does not say that he will destroy the Temple in Mark 13:1. He uses a passive, which may mean that he is saying God will tear it down. On the other hand, according to the Synoptic reports of the trials, isn’t the accusation itself labelled as “false” (or, to be absolutely precise, brought by “false” witnesses)?

  5. Point 3 makes me imagine Jesus saying to Philip, “So, where’s good to eat round here?”, in the style of a New York sitcom.

    That aside, really interesting and helpful piece. Anything that helps take the difference of the fourth gospel to the synoptics seriously while also demonstrating that they have some relation to each other (in terms of relaying the same or similar events) is very welcome.

  6. I find that Kenneth Bailey also helps enormously in contributing important insights from middle-eastern culture and the literary construction – things we miss because the original culture of the Gospels is not our own.

  7. Ian,

    Interestingly, to me anyway, is that this post and your earlier one called “What do we do when the Bible is ‘wrong’? made perfect sense to me as an American evangelical/theological conservative. I grew up in a conservative wing of United Methodism, which means that we did have an academic bent and theological training, but were considered ignorant by liberals and liberal by fundamentalists. 🙂 All of that to give context when I say, “Hm. Of course. I knew that” to your posts. I think it makes a great difference whether you come from a background of trying to prove the scriptures didn’t mean what they seem to say, or from a background of believing that the scriptures are indeed true (no, not always 100 percent literal in every application or genre or form,) but true and having historic or cultural or intertextual or even common-sense explanations for how this could possibly be so.

    • Yes, I think you are spot on. I wonder whether Peter Enns’ comes over in the wrong way because he is addressing the one issue but is read as addressing the other…


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